Athletes often seek help for race day nutrition in the days or weeks before their big event. While it’s never too late to fine tune and make adjustments, nailing your race day nutrition is much more likely if you get a head start during the off season. So, if you have started planning your races for the coming season, take a moment to also plan how nutrition will help you hit your targets and PRs.
Before you make any major changes get on top of a few numbers and facts:
- Schedule a medical check-up, including a blood test, to rule out any nutritional deficiencies that need to be addressed. For athletes, common areas of concern are iron and B12. While deficiencies can be relatively easily addressed from a dietary point of view, they can be crippling for race day results. This is an area that a sports nutritionist, or someone experienced with athletes, health and performance, can help plot suitable diet strategies.
- Keep a food log for a week or two to get a handle on what you are eating. Most of us are deficient in quality nutrients (usually from inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables, coupled with high training loads). Improving nutrient density – the amount of nutrients per calorie – in your day to day diet will, in itself, boost race day performance this summer without any other changes. It will certainly improve your overall health. A basic food log, coupled with an activity and symptom/stress/sleep diary, may also help you figure out if there are any food intolerances or reactions that might prevent you from training or recovering to your potential. These logs can also help you understand the impact that certain foods have on performance.
Once you have ironed out any nutritional deficiencies or food intolerances and are working to create healthy habits in regards to nutrient density, then get to work on some specifics for race day:
- Think ahead to race day and think about what shape you want to be in. That work and planning starts now. Optimal fitness and health will provide best performances and maximum enjoyment. Success, then, entails eating with a strategy. Eat to maximize recovery. Fuel to support key workouts and optimize training adaptations. Work towards desired body composition changes. Eat to support a healthy immune system and hormonal function. These good nutrition habits, practised daily, will set the stage for race day.
- Pick a strategy and stick with it when it comes to the actual race day plan. Use previous experiences, as well as sound sports nutrition recommendations, to come up with a plan for race day. The idea is not for it to be perfect immediately, but to give you something to play around with in training. Try your proposed race-day breakfast before key workouts. Test out sports drinks, bars, gels and other foods that you plan to have during the race. Again, the idea is not to replicate an entire race plan in training, but to test out certain elements, gauging how they sit, how the taste or texture appeals after hours on the bike, in different weather conditions and after different race-day breakfasts (or pre-race dinners). Some things take a while to figure out and even small changes, such as flavour, texture or consistency, can make a big difference.
- Train your gut: Just like training your muscles, your gut needs some working out if you expect it to perform on race day. For some key workouts, or even just portions of a key workout (i.e. an hour or two of a four-hour ride), test the actual rate (amount of food and drink per hour) you would plan on taking in during an actual race. Your gut needs to get used to having this volume and concentration in it. We become better able to tolerate, and absorb, foods and fluids that we are accustomed to having more frequently.
- Take notes. Treat yourself like a mini experiment and be prepared to change and adjust that written plan accordingly. Use smaller races to put your race plan into action and, perhaps, refine further, noting that weather and temperature may also affect the strategy.
- Reflect on what you have learnt from the off season and take this through to your races. This might mean that you know you have to take certain foods or sports foods and drinks with you to a race because what they are serving on course does not suit you. Or that you have a particular pre-race breakfast that just seems to work.
- Try to be flexible, intuitive and conscious. Sometimes even the best laid plans just don’t pan out and you can be left scrambling on course feeling under fuelled, dehydrated or battling GI distress. This is where you need to be prepared to tear up the script and listen to your body. Tune in to what it needs and feel your way through. Dig deep into your memory – it’s likely that you have actually experienced such a situation in training, and you were able to get through it. Being able to recognize that this course of action is, in itself, part of the plan (albeit a backup plan) removes much of the stress which can worsen the situation. Stay calm and be reassured that alternatives (fuel, fluids, timing etc.) will generally get the job done.
Pip Taylor is a sports-performance dietician based in Australia.